Critical friendship thoughts for #RUOK day: from a sport perspective

Thursday, 14 September, is R U OK? Day in Australia.

I have been thinking about the role critical friendship can play in conversations about personal well-being in sport.

One of the papers that has influenced my thing about critical friendship was written by John MacBeath and Stewart Jardine twenty years ago. It is titled ‘I didn’t know he was ill – the role and value of the critical friend‘.

They start their consideration of critical friendship with this paragraph:

The critical friend is a powerful idea,perhaps because it contains an inherent tension. Friends bring a high degree of unconditional positive regard. They are forgiving and tolerant of your failings. They sometimes even love you for your faults. Critics are at first sight, at least, conditional, negative and intolerant of failure. Perhaps the critical friend comes closest to what might be regarded as the ‘true friendship’ – a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique. (1998:41)

They explore how this ‘true friendship’ can flourish with and through unconditional listening … and a willingness to challenge.

In five years as a critical friend with a group of thirty coaches, I have tried to learn how to balance listening with opportunities to challenge.

The challenge moments come at times when coaches’ self-esteem is high and the world is a secure place to be. It is not always connected with winning but that adds to buoyancy and openness.

In the five years of the friendships there have been times when listening was the natural thing to do when coaches enter dark places.

All the coaches in the group have a high public profile. The performances of their teams is subject to intense public scrutiny and at the worst of times their personal integrity is under direct and sustained attack. This engulfs their family too.

In good times, coaches and their families have more ‘friends’ than they could imagine. In bad times, the number of friends diminish. It affects the whole family and in some cases leads to their children being bullied at school.

My concern is that as a culture we have normalised the extreme language used to vilify coaches. Sitting with coaches who have entered dark woods affirms the costs of this language.

Back in 2011, Ben Pobjie wrote:

Because I know now the desperate flailing, the horrific suffocation that comes when those black waves come crashing over and you find yourself just about incapable of keeping your head up in the face of the merciless tides. But we’re all capable. We may have to lean on others from time to time, but we don’t have to fall. Tomorrow I may feel them crashing again, and become convinced that none of this is true, but now I have to affirm that it IS. (My emphasis.)

There have been five explicit occasions in my time with coaches that they have been subject to merciless tides. There have been many more times when coaches have not communicated about these tides.

I do infuse my critical friendship with R U OK? thinking. I hope my coach friends feel they can lean on me but despite my offers they sometimes choose not to lean.

R U OK? Day is my opportunity to revisit this paradox of being available, of having ‘unconditional positive regard’, of loving them to bits … and still coming up short as a critical friend.

R U OK? 2012

A year has flown by very quickly.

It is R U OK? Day on Thursday, 13 September.

R U OK?’s mission is:

to help end suicide by empowering people to make a difference through open and honest conversation and to drive real connection.

My life has been profoundly affected by the death of my brother, John, thirty years ago. He is in my thoughts most days and thirty years seems like thirty seconds sometimes.

When I wrote about John in 2010, Gavin Larkin found time to comment on my post.

Gavin Larkin and Janina Nearn developed R U OK? Day to inspire Australians to stay connected and support each other. It is almost a year to the day that Gavin died after a long battle against cancer. Gavin was forty-two when he died. John was twenty-six.

I have thought about Gavin a great deal too in the last year. Gav and John came strongly into my thoughts when I learned of Non Thomas’s death earlier this year. Non was a colleague from UWIC. Gary Speed’s death late in 2011 showed me just how fragile coping with a sudden death in the family can be. His death brought back my family’s experience thirty years ago and how public private lives can become.

On the 13th I will be thinking about, John, Gav, Non and Gary. I will remember too that R U OK? is an everyday question with profound significance.

Dark Woods and Crumple Zones

A line in a Radio National interview (March 2011) with Jonathan Franzen made me catch my breath.

You know, you enter a dark wood at a certain point in your life and things start falling apart; your life is not what you expected it to be.

The line took me back to a post I wrote last October to coincide with R U OK? Day.

I had been thinking about both these posts and the emotions they stirred after learning about a paper by Jan-Emmanuel De Neve titled Functional Polymorphism (5-HTTLPR) in the Serotonin Transporter Gene is Associated with Subjective Well-Being: Evidence from a U.S. Nationally Representative Sample in the Journal of Human Genetics.

A press release from the London School of Economics about Jan-Emmanuel’s work notes:

A related paper prepared by Jan-Emmanuel De Neve and co-authors Nicholas Christakis (Harvard Medical School), James H. Fowler (University of California, San Diego), and Bruno Frey (University of Zurich) further develops this research and looks at the evidence produced from a study of twin pairs. This work shows that genetics explain about one-third of the variation in human happiness. This paper is currently available as a SSRN working paper at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1553633. A TED talk on the link between genetics and happiness delivered by Jan-Emmanuel De Neve on March 18th, 2011 is now available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Po_YJZW7VJs

A retweet from our son, Sam, refocussed my attention too. Sam pointed to:

Ben Pobjie’s post is titled Crumple Zone. I read this paragraph and had to wait to read the rest of the post. It was too difficult to go into a dark wood on first reading:

To say depression has only just wrapped me in its loving embrace would be wrong. I’ve been falling into that pit off and on for most of the last 20 years. But it was this year that everything came to a head. It was this year that, as I spun my wheels frantically trying to deal with the release of two books, the writing of two regular columns, my first-ever comedy festival show, a full-time night job and the accompanying sleep deprivation, and providing for a wife and three children, I finally cracked open, and lost my ability to keep it together. Thankfully, this also meant I stopped pretending everything was OK. The meltdown came suddenly, frighteningly and with devastating force, but it was the meltdown I had to have.

and then get to this paragraph:

Because I know now the desperate flailing, the horrific suffocation that comes when those black waves come crashing over and you find yourself just about incapable of keeping your head up in the face of the merciless tides. But we’re all capable. We may have to lean on others from time to time, but we don’t have to fall. Tomorrow I may feel them crashing again, and become convinced that none of this is true, but now I have to affirm that it IS.

When I read Ben’s post on 12 May there were already 164 comments. Reading Ben’s post and the comments gave me the opportunity to realise how fortunate I am.

I do need to speak with Sam about this too. He is far away in Liptovsky in Slovakia ready to race in a canoe slalom event. I am very grateful that he drew my attention to Annabel and Ben.

I need to look at 5-HTTLPR too. The Telegraph quotes Jan-Emmanuel:

Of course, our well-being isn’t determined by this one gene – other genes and especially experience throughout the course of life will continue to explain the majority of variation in individual happiness.

But this finding helps to explain why we each have a unique baseline level of happiness and why some people tend to be naturally happier than others, and that’s in no small part due to our individual genetic make-up.

Photo Credit

Dark Woods